Writen by Beverly Robinson for Tualatin Tomorrow
This is a back-to-school story about the importance of education, hard work and perseverance, and the dreams of immigrants for their children and a better life. It’s a story that is relevant whether you’re getting ready for school this year or your last school bell was decades ago. It’s a reminder of the giddy feeling of expectation and rebirth that each September brings, even now. This is a story about Gimena (Gigi) Olguin and the American Dream.
Gigi’s smile is the first thing you notice about her. It lights up her face and the whole room. It’s a smile that promises much but, as you learn later, hides much, too. Gigi has it made. She has received a four year, fullride scholarship to Warner Pacific College in Portland where she will study international business, with future plans to learn Mandarin and travel to China. Who knows? That goal is no more a stretch than the one that brought her family from Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo, Mexico to California where Gigi was born and then back and forth to Mexico for much of her early life.
Gigi’s life has been full of challenges. Moving to Mexico to seek opportunities meant separations from dad Luis who stayed in the U.S. to work. Then injuries caused job losses for both parents. Gigi’s grandfather was kidnapped for ransom. Gigi, her father, mother and brother moved from house to house, apartment to apartment, often crowded into one room in a relative’s home, sometimes living without utilities. Money was tight and tensions were high. Gigi was depressed, anxious and guilt-ridden over the cost of keeping her and her brother in school. She saw the pain her parents were experiencing every day working in bad conditions and at a minimum wage just so she and her younger brother had an opportunity for a successful future. She still kept her smile.
School in Mexico is very different than in Tualatin, though some experiences are the same. It is still hard to be the outsider. The one whose English or Spanish doesn’t quite blend. The one who can be ridiculed or ostracized by other students or teachers for speaking the wrong language. In Mexico, poorer schools are often open-air and may look ramshackle. Floors can be dirt or rock. Supplies are scarce. Gigi remembers one girl receiving a donated bag of school supplies which was gone by the next day. The girl’s mother sold it for food. Pencils were used until they couldn’t be sharpened anymore. Sometimes, children came to school in soiled clothes or barefoot. In the end, this wasn’t what Gigi’s family wanted for her and it was back to Tualatin for mid school and high school. Going and coming back was a culture shock both ways. School mentoring programs were sources of support.
The Tualatin Public Library became a refuge. Starting in 2009, Gigi shelved books and helped with story hour. As Library Manager Abigail Elder says, “From the beginning, I was impressed with Gimena’s responsible nature, clear leadership skills and commitment to serving others. She is enthusiastic about volunteerism and eager to learn new tasks. This fall (2010) we tapped Gimena to be a teen leader for our middle-school volunteer group because of her skills working with others and mentoring youth.” Gigi gives the Library credit for helping her obtain her college scholarship. Staff helped edit her application and she could connect to internet services there. At the Library two weeks after she heard about the Act Six scholarship, she frantically worked to complete all the forms and essay questions. She finished at 11:30 p.m., meeting the midnight deadline.
The Act Six program that selected Gigi identifies emerging urban and community leaders. It helps students succeed academically and grow as service-minded leaders and agents of transformation. It has trained 256 scholars in the last nine years, 25% of which are Hispanic, 58% female, and 86% first generation college or low income. 90% of the scholars who started college in this program have graduated or are still enrolled. This is a remarkable, supportive atmosphere for someone like Gigi who has so much to give but who becomes intimidated by the language barrier, worries about her grammar and who struggles to keep her grades high. Gigi began in January of her senior year to prepare for college by attending weekly group sessions and completing extra study assignments required by the program.
Gigi thinks many doors have opened for her when she started getting more involved in her community. I first met Gigi when she volunteered last year as part of a Latino outreach effort sponsored by Tualatin Tomorrow . She helped at the Crawfish Festival and an outreach event at the Library. She was nominated by the Library and received an award for volunteer service. As she says, volunteering is her passion and it shows. She has even met the mayor! She believes that if everyone gives a little to their community by volunteering, our communities would be better, safer places for us all.
As Gigi leaves for college this fall, she carries her own high expectations and that of her family and her community to succeed in a rapidly changing world. It can be done. As I have shared with Gigi, my own father was the son of immigrants. He didn’t speak English until he started school. He never finished high school. His grammar was often poor and his self esteem sometimes low. He didn’t find stable employment until he was in his late 40’s. Yet, he achieved success and he sent two children to college. For my parents and Gigi’s and all the other parents who are struggling to help their children obtain a better life, bless you. It’s the beginning of a new school year and anything is possible.
Beverly Robinson has been a Tualatin resident for 25 years. While technically retired, she keeps busy working for the Tualatin Tomorrow Steering Committee, volunteers with the Tualatin Library Foundation, and is a member of the Tualatin Historical Society.